LAist Interview: John Cale

John Cale’s return to Los Angeles for the first American performance of his landmark 1973 album Paris 1919 includes a reunion with the UCLA Philharmonia, the same group that gave the original recording its lush, expansive orchestration. While the evening promises guest appearances from alt-rock heartthrobs Ben Gibbard and Mark Lanegan, the real treat on offer is the rare opportunity to hear some of rock’s most incredibly ambitious, grandly realized songs performed properly. And as Cale reveals in an interview with LAist, he plans to make the most of the extra hands at his command, padding out the program with more material that’ll be suitable for the big band.

At the time the record was made, Cale had been a fixture on the extreme end of the New York music scene for a decade, ever since the time he left his native Wales to join composer LaMonte Young’s group the Theater of Eternal Music, before forming the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in 1965. Cale parted with the VU in fall of 1968, but not before finishing two of the most game-changing records in rock history. In the ensuing time, Cale had worked on a number of albums that, like the Velvets', would take years to be recognized as the milestones they are. He produced the Stooges’ first album and Nico’s Marble Index, played on Nick Drake’s Bryter Later, and completed three deeply strange solo albums, only one of which, the acoustic-dominated Vintage Violence, had contained much in the way of vocals or recognizable songs.

As such, the arrival of Paris 1919 must have been something of a shocker considering Cale's history in far-left field, with its irresistibly melodic songs, beautiful, low-key playing from the members of Little Feat, punctuated by massive swoops of symphonic glory from the Philharmonia, along with Cale’s most gorgeous singing on record. You could blame some of it on the change of coast: the album has a distinctly seventies-LA sound to it, laid-back but edgy, pretty on the surface even as you sense the darker elements buried underneath. He never made anything quite like it again, although that’s true of all of his best albums.

Cale spoke to LAist by phone from his manager’s office about his expectations for the UCLA show, the effect of Mod-era proto-punk on the Velvets, the future of his multi-media project “Dark Days”, the rad-ness of the LA punk scene, and opens the door for a Susan Boyle performance of “Fear (Is A Man’s Best Friend.)”

How did you come to the decision to do a performance of Paris 1919 as a complete album?

Well, you know, there have been a lot of opportunities and a lot of suggestions about doing this over the years. But there was one that came up in Cardiff, in Wales, at an International Film Festival. And it turned out that they could get an orchestra. And I thought, well, here’s an opportunity to see what we can pull together. And, you know, the album’s only about forty minutes, so we had to add, and I didn’t really want to just have rock and roll songs for that part of the program. So we built up a repertoire of other songs arranged for the orchestra. We have “Don’t Go Gentle” in that group, and we have “E Is Missing”, and “Hedda Gabler,” and they all work with that orchestral side to them. And so every time we’ve performed it, we’ve tried to really have a new arrangement, another set of chance for the next concert. We haven’t been able to do that in here but when we get over to Melbourne in a few more weeks, we’ll have another couple of songs added to the list. There’s quite a few to choose from.

So the second half is really gonna be about three rock and roll songs with the band, a few, maybe new ones, and then the orchestra comes back on and we finish the night off. It’s taken a while to do that.

How did you choose the musicians for the original recording of Paris 1919?

I really didn’t. I was told to go out there. I had been picked up by Warner's, and Chris (Thomas, producer) had just arrived, and there was a suggestion that we use Little Feat. And I had no idea how that would work. But then we did a couple of days in the studio and it was obvious that, I saw a lot of care in how this was being played. I’d run into Lowell before, when I did a recording, did a single, “Dixieland In Dixie,” about four months before that. I didn’t know how that would work but Richie Hayward was perfect for the grooves. And Lowell’s playing was just really restrained, and very beautiful.

So it worked out very well. But I didn’t really know who the musicians would be. I was kind of puzzled as to where I was gonna find any, cause I was working at Warner’s in the A&R Department, and ...I think Chris Thomas had spoken to Ted Templeman and Ted suggested that we use Little Feat.

What had brought you to the west coast at that time?

I had been working for Columbia in New York, CBS, and I had the opportunity to maybe go work for Mo Ostin in LA. I really wanted to try pastures new and get out of New York for a bit. And I came out to LA, did my work at Warner's, and the question of who I was going to record for came up. At the time I was still signed to CBS but ... it’s an invidious position, to be an artist on a label and working for A&R. Those two don’t benefit each other.

(The A&R experience) showed me anyway that making an album was one thing, getting visibility and getting a band on the road and supporting an artist is totally another. And I really didn’t have a band, so it was all working it out in the studio.

Did you have any particular aging movie star in mind when you wrote “Antarctica Starts Here”?

Yeah, that was the Billy Wilder movie, Sunset Boulevard.

I read a quote where you’d talked about hearing the Who in 1965 and suddenly having the realization that you’d better get started now because your ideas were about to get done by someone else. What did you hear in them that was different from the many other groups of that time?

It was the excitement.

I’d left (Wales) but I would go home periodically. And I was already in the VU. We were in the middle of a bit of a Beatle revolution in New York. Every night we’d listen to Murray The K on WMCA, you know, Beatles. And we were trying to figure out what our identity was and point of view, with the bass, and with distortion, and with noise. So I went back and stopped on the way in London to meet some people that I knew there, and they would show me, you know, “You gotta listen to the Small Faces. "What You Gonna Do About It," which has a distortion solo in the middle of that, and then the Daddy Longlegs and the Who. So there was a lot of excitement and new things going on.

I was there with my reel to reel in the middle of VU rehearsals, trying to get something going. And somebody had pointed me in the direction of Marianne Faithfull, and I showed up on her doorstep. And I didn’t get the impression that I was really getting anywhere. So I went back to New York with these new records. I mean, although we had our own style, we all were interested in what was happening, and we just bore down on it to see if we could give it our own identity.

What do you look for when you’re considering a production job for another artist? What make a possible project the kind of thing you want to be involved with?

If you look at Patti and at Iggy, there’s something unstoppable about both of them. No matter what, these guys, they’re meant to be. And the best thing you can do is offer them some freedom to really discover that on a record, or to help them. And so you know, that unstoppable quality is the first thing that comes to mind. With Jonathan Richman, there’s not a lot of unstoppability about him, but you realize when you listen to all these weak-kneed songs, the weak-kneed ideal is really the strength of it. Surprises like that are really important when finding artists.

Is there anyone still around that you’d like to collaborate with as a producer?

Oh, yeah… how much time have we got? The wind is full of them. There’s hundreds of bands, very busy doing brilliant things. It’s not as simple anymore as ”Do you want to produce this?” You know what happens, people say “Oh we’ve got to have the Velvet Underground sound on this record.” It doesn’t necessarily follow that that’s the best thing for a band. It’s really the band thinking you can (make their tapes) come alive and give those a rubber stamp and then you’re off, you have the VU sound. That’s not really possible all the time.

And it’s better to have people struggle with their identity, at least until they figure out what it is. That they’re willing and eager to do that, that’s worth a lot.

You were involved as a producer early on in the UK and US punk scenes. Which one did you find more exciting?

Well there was a New York punk scene, an LA punk scene and a London punk scene. And from the spiritual point of view, the LA scene had more to do with the British scene than the New York one did. The New York punk scene seemed to come out of New Jersey a lot. Some of them were Lower East Side. But there was something odd about it. In London you could see that these bands were really very angry at the establishment. And I don’t know whether that because the distance between the rich and the poor was greater there than it was in New York or what. But it certainly seemed to be the case that in LA, there was something visceral about it, and not so much in New York.

Do you have any plans to bring your multi media exhibit “Dark Days” to the United States?

Not as of yet. That seems to be an ongoing project. It’s finding its focus. When I did it at the Biennale, someone saw it and said, you know, that would be great to have in the Theater Der Welt, in Essen, Germany. They thought that it should be done live, and there was a possibility of doing it on these huge screens, and we had these 14 by 21 foot screens, five of them. And it looked gorgeous. But the sound was really impossible to deal with in that space. So we ended up the only way we could do it, and have the sound anywhere near respectable, was to give everyone headphones. So we had six hundred people for the first screening, about six hundred fifty for the second.

Well, it turned out that whatever the sound issue we were having, getting swallowed up in a cavernous space like that, it was added to by having the headphones. Because with the headphones, you create another barrier between the person and the piece. And so I think it’s got to go back to the live speaker situation.

And the piece is up in Cardiff in an actual museum. And I think the rest of it still needs to be ironed out.

The Theater of Eternal Music is something that a lot more people have read about than had the chance to experience. I’ve been reading recently that there have been some semi-permanent installations by LaMonte Young involving sine wave generators instead of live musicians, and I wonder if you’ve had the chance to see those, and how they compare to the performances you did.

Well La Monte and Marian and Tony Conrad and myself, we don’t play together anymore. And that was the human face of the Tour Voice (sic?) it was called at the time. The sine wave thing is really a side project of LaMonte’s, I think. I don’t think LaMonte is interested in having either the tapes that we made or performances that we did revisted. He’s kind of closed the door on any kind of collaboration so I don’t know how… There are some available, you can find the odd CD. I think the Table Of The Elements have some of them. But when I think of when I got there in ’63… we played every day from ’63 to ’65. And there were all these tapes made of every… you can see where we started from and where we ended up. And you realize that at the end, it’s a very different kind of music from when we started.

What do you think you would say if you were asked by Susan Boyle to do one of your songs?

“Be my guest.”


John Cale performs Paris 1919 and other material with special guests Ben Gibbard, Mark Lanegan and the UCLA Philharmonia, at UCLA Royce Hall on Thursday, September 30. Tickets, $38 to $68, are available now. UCLA Live is also offerring an after-party for ticket holders with complimentary wine and desserts and a “chance to mix and mingle with the artists.” RSVP here by Tuesday September 28 at 5pm.